A Ballad for the Modern Man: Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence

Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence was the very definition of a sleeper hit, it was released to commercial failure in 1964 before climbing onto pole position on the Billboard Top 100 for January 1966. The use of this song’s haunting opening lines in memes has led to a revival of interest in this masterpiece, but as is the fate of all things of beauty, its haunting lyrics is often sacrificed at the altar of its visceral music. This assignment attempts to elucidate the critique of modern mass consumption society and the depiction of alienation inherent in The Sound of Silence.

Singer-Songwriter duo Simon & Garfunkel performing outside at a concert in Dublin
Source: Wikipedia

The iconic opening verse of this song describes a conversation between a man and Darkness. He talks of a vision being implanted in his mind which he can’t dispel. In his dreams he wanders the streets of a city on a cold night all alone. The wandering bard is stopped by a neon light which redirects his vision on masses of humanity “talking” but “not speaking”, i.e. unable to meaningfully communicate. He tries to break this silence by trying to reach out, but the silence is deafening. The people worship their” neon god” ignoring the possibility of disruption from the marginalized sections of society.

Loneliness is a recurring theme throughout the song, with the bard constantly reiterating his solitude. He talks of “restless dreams where I walked alone” an overt expression of his isolation. Another hint at this would be him referring to darkness as his old friend. Darkness is considered to be a metaphor for evil and thus his friendliness with darkness reveals that he is friendless. His loneliness and desire for connection pervade the verses.

The reason for his loneliness is quite self-evident in his talking of neon lights. Neon was the primary lighting used in the billboards of 1960s and thus hints at consumerism. The worship of the neon god is essentially the worship of money. The choice between God and Mammon has been clearly made. Money becomes a proxy for achieving consumption through which humans actualize themselves. As Marx notes “The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality”, but by the amount of money I possess.

The inability of people to have meaningful communication is then brought out viscerally by the following lines

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share”

Human logos has created technologies which enable communication at a scale which was once unimaginable. We have mobile phones, emails, WhatsApp and FaceTime. But are we actually talking to each other meaningfully? What is the ethos in our conversations or the mythos that provides meaning to our lives? This eerily similar message from a Japanese suicide message board reveal that we are marching onward to that reality.

“Someone please look at me and acknowledge me

please acknowledge the fact that I am here

 Though I shouted and shouted

it did not reach anyone’s ears”

Japanese suicide board

The cause for this loneliness and loss of meaning is alienation. This obsession with consumption makes humans value things over people. In the rush for obtaining more and more things, his humanity is estranged from him. In the quest for self-gratification, he forgoes the community of feeling that is what bonds people together. The modern man is so rational that he disregards “the words of the prophets.”; of tradition, ridiculing those philosophers who understand the inevitability of the collapse of this system; of the rising of those outside the system. He prefers the comfortable numbness of conspicuous consumption, ignoring the words of the bard, as did the cave-dwellers did the free man in Platos’ Allegory of The Cave, thus selling his hangman the rope that will hang him.

The Sound of Silence warns us of the dangers of consumption without need, and communication without meaning. The question is not whether we have crossed a point of no return but whether we have the will to mend our ways?

Published by sathyajithsmanthanath

I am but a gadfly attached to the state

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